Arika Everatt-Meeuse of Shannondoe Farm discusses the challenges facing Ontario Thoroughbred breeders:
Despite the uncertainty since the end of the Slots At Racetracks Program (SARP), our farm committed to standing three stallions in Ontario in the hopes that the government would follow through on their promises to fix the mess they created. We even grew our broodmare band to 63 mares in 2015/16, but as the breeding industry continues to “circle the drain” we have aggressively cut mares so that we are down to 28 this year with the plan to have just 15 by the end of November, 2019.
On top of that economic loss to Ontario, two years in a row now we’ve sent mares to New York, and this year we also sent four mares to Pennsylvania. All of those mares would have foaled out in Ontario. All of this is completely because of the situation in Ontario which used to be the place to be – but not now.
I can’t be any more frank than that. Ontario breeders have been put in an untenable position that will continue to negatively impact the horse supply and the long-term viability of racing in this province. The government needs to find a way to get the breeders more money and let us allocate it, or what’s left of the province’s breeders will pack it up entirely.
Comparing Thoroughbred Breeder Awards
When the Liberals pulled the rug out from under our feet in 2012 with the announcement that they were ending SARP, we had just purchased Society’s Chairman. Though we had always produced Ontario-bred foals, we hadn’t stood an Ontario stallion since the Ontario-sired program had started. Each year, though, more and more customers at the sales would ask to see our Ontario-sired horses and we didn’t have any to show them. Based on their interest, we decided to invest in a stallion to participate in the program that was clearly working for the local breeders. We had already booked 44 mares to him and would probably have finished the season with 55-60 when the government made their announcement. In the end, we bred just 21 mares to him that year, of which 11 were our own. The next year he bred just five mares and nothing the year after. This sent us into survival mode, so we bred and sold horses in Kentucky, because nothing was happening in Ontario.
Since then, we’ve expanded our U.S. breeding program into New York and Pennsylvania, because they have become so rewarding to state breeders. They offer upwards of $13 million and $12 million respectively in state breeder and stallion awards – compare that with $2.8 million available in Ontario.
Here’s how that plays out for breeders. In Pennsylvania, for example, a state-sired 2-year-old that wins a $45,000 Maiden Special Weight will earn the breeder a $10,800 U.S. award. A New York-sired 2-year-old typically races for $100,000 because their purses are so strong and the breeders get a 30 per cent award with a $40,000 cap per race. A comparable 2-year-old Ontario-sired foaled in Ontario that wins a similar race here would earn the breeder a $3,600 CDN award.
To further sweeten their pot, New York announced last fall that they were doubling the purses to $2.3 million for a series of 10 New York-sired races. Included in this series are two $500,000 2-year-old races designed specifically to entice more people to stand better stallions in New York and for more people to breed their mares there. And it’s working! Our main reason to send mares to New York is so we can sell a NY-bred.
It’s the NY-bred sales that are the most lucrative – their sales are just insane. The average at the 2017 NY-bred sale was $89,000 and that increased 20 per cent in 2018 to $107,000. In comparison, the Ontario sale average was $17,794 in 2017 and $18,532 in 2018. Our average sees breeders losing a minimum of $5-10,000 just on the cost to raise a yearling, never mind the stud fee.
These states have built such great programs based on sharing the slot money with the breeders, and they are all based on the model that Ontario used to have. I cannot understand why the powers that be in this province don’t recognize the necessity of looking after the breeders along with the racetracks. The U.S. understands that they need local breeders so that they have enough horses to fill the races – why doesn’t Ontario? They also understand that the breeders are the economic engine that drives so many rural jobs – why doesn’t Ontario?
Ontario Racing & the Thoroughbred Improvement Program
The straw that broke this camel’s back was the announcement that Ontario Racing (OR) was going to assume the control of the Thoroughbred Improvement Program (TIP) and thereby the breeder awards that are part of it.
Let’s all remember that OR is a self-appointed body and has sub-contracted all industry activities out to Ontario Racing Management (ORM), a for-profit company wholly owned by Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG). So many in this industry remain unaware of exactly how much WEG controls and dictates how the industry is run. For example, as the CTHS’ landlord, WEG dictates when we can hold sales and refuses to consider alternate dates for the Mixed Sale so that it might be held when trainers and breeders are in the province. Woodbine simply has too much influence. They are more focused on expanded gaming and land development and seem to be have lost sight of their true mandate, which includes supporting Ontario breeders.
I started calling Ontario Racing to get some answers about TIP. What does it mean that they are taking over? What are they going to do? Will there be breeder’s awards? Yearling sales? A Yearlings Sales Stakes Program? Will we still have stallion awards? Will we still have an Ontario Sired Stakes Program? AND FOR HOW LONG? And who at OR knows anything about what the breeders need and want? Who is going to help them allocate it all? Even if they had picked up the phone (which they did not), I know that nobody there would have a clue how to answer any of these questions.
Personally, I don’t think that anybody other than the CTHS should be allocating any money for breeders. Nobody but breeders knows what do to! We need those breeder awards. We’ve struggled so much, we can’t lose the Ontario-sired stakes or the breeder awards to the whims of Ontario Racing. They shouldn’t be running the breeding business, that’s what we elected the CTHS board to do.
And it’s not just a few people who are affected. There are 35,000 people employed on farms these days, but that number six years ago was 60,000. We’ve already lost so many jobs because of how many owners and breeders have already given up.
I blame political games for a lot of this mess. The Liberal government didn’t care about rural issues, because they don’t typically get the rural vote. That’s why the support from the Conservatives is so crucial right now. I hope they recognize the tremendous impact of the spin-off created by racehorses – feed companies, fertilizer companies, trucks, trailers, insurance, property value, vets, clinics, blacksmiths, straw, hay, shavings, tack shops, etc. It’s an incredible trickle-down effect.
On top of that, nobody likes to talk about the fact that the horse industry hires a lot of people that aren’t employable in any other sector. They are specialists that are devoted to our animals and the farming way of life, but many agricultural workers don’t have secondary school education and aren’t suited to jobs in the service or retail sectors.
Thoroughbred Breeders Must be Heard
This government needs to pay attention and do so very quickly by rebuilding the confidence of the breeders and the buyers. We used to have a healthy breeding industry with a good mare base and a healthy stallion population. The breeders were able to sell their product and the sales were good and there was a good program to run in.
We no longer enjoy the same relationships with Woodbine or the government and have been left out of the discussions for the future of our industry. Instead, the people leading the discussions have a poor understanding of our role and grossly undervalue our contribution. Breeders have been left behind while the track has been allowed to control the situation to expand their gaming and real estate holdings. It’s time for the government to step in and acknowledge that breeders are directly and indirectly responsible for many jobs that impact rural Ontario. They need to assign $10 million annually to be directed by and in support of the breeders of this province before the rest close up shop and decimate Ontario’s rural economy.
Arika Everatt-Meeuse runs her family’s Shannondoe Farm based in St. Thomas, Ontario. Her parents, James and Janeane Everatt, started the commercial breeding operation in 1971 and have been in operation ever since. The farm’s highlight year came in 2015 when Shannondoe was Canada’s seventh-best breeder by earnings, with $1,780,288. The impressive earnings were largely due to their homebred and 2016 Horse Of The Year, Caren.
Arika is also part-owner of Kentucky-based South Point Sales Agency, which consigned 230 horses in eight US sales in 2018.
Arika was a member of the TIP committee as a breeder-at-large up until 2018 and was on the board of the CTHS from 2005 to 2006.